The Worthy Poor

The following is a guest post from Eric Schubert, a provisional member of the Iowa Annual Conference, serving as lead pastor at Greenfield United Methodist Church in Greenfield, IA.

I recently gave a sermon series in my church based on the Scriptures about being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20). During that series we talked about what it means to belong to Christ and the Kingdom of God and represent that Kingdom on Earth. One aspect we discussed was how easily ideas of the world come to seem natural or even Christian when in fact they are not. One idea we discussed was that of the worthy poor.

The idea of the worthy poor was firmly established in Western thought by the philosophers of Greece and Rome (especially Plato in ancient Greece, reinforced by the Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in Rome) as well as by the economic systems of the pagan Roman Empire. The economic system during the time of Jesus is known as patronage. Patronage is a wealthy or powerful person taking care of less wealthy or powerful people. These (strict) levels of power and wealth were determined by familial, political, financial, or national relationships. The idea of the “poor” or “needy” as we understand it now did not exist in Roman pagan thought. Instead, a person with money was obliged to financially support those within the rich person’s patronage expectation.

So what did one think about those in need outside of a patronage relationship? Frankly, they rarely thought about them. When someone in need outside of a patronage relationship was thought of the view of those in need was quite negative. Plato, hundreds of years before the time of the Roman Empire, stated the idea of the worthy poor perfectly when he wrote, “it is not the starving as such or the similarly afflicted who deserve sympathy, but the man who, in spite of his moderation or some other virtue or progress toward it, nevertheless experiences some misfortune.” Plautus, a famous comedic playwright who lived in Rome around 180 BC, developed a character role for beggars in his plays which derided and mocked them. He wrote it was better to let beggars starve, since “he does a beggar a bad service who give him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost, and the lives of the poor are merely prolonged to their own misery.” Seneca, the great Roman leader and Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, believed one should only assist those who were deserving. “The good leader and judge ‘will not avert his countenance of his sympathy from anyone because he has a withered leg, or is emaciated and in rags, and is old and leans upon a staff; but all the worthy he will aid and will, like a god, look graciously upon the unfortunate.’ ” And thus, honestly, ends the writings found about those in need. This lack of record is in itself telling, but what has been found is all negative.

The Christian record of the time, from the earliest recorded writings leading into the Cappadocian period of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, is very different than that of the pagan leaders. The Bishops worked very hard to introduce the concept of the poor and needy and attempt to drastically change how people thought of those in need. Early Christians led radically different lives than those around them, both in economic and physical relationship. A part of weekly worship in the time of St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) was the collection and distribution of funds so “the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word take care of all in need.” There are examples of Christian care for the sick throughout the second and third centuries from Syria to Rome. Though unable to build institutional structures, early Christians served the sick, poor, and otherwise distressed to the best of their ability.

The Cappadocians (Basil, Nazianzus, and Nyssa) and Chrysostom publicly and directly challenged the Stoic and cultural views on how to treat those in need. They did this in several different ways. By embracing the many and various Biblical texts from the Old Testament through the New, the Bishops re-described the poor as kin (that they were sisters and brothers, related by the blood of Christ, and therefore to be cared for in a reinvented patronage system), argued the poor share the Image of God and as bearers of the image deserve help, that Matthew 25 really means what it says and the poor person you help truly is Jesus, and taught that acting like Christ makes one more like Christ (how Wesleyan!). Along with these teaching principles, the Bishops lived a life which practiced what they preached, doing all they could to help those in need.

Basil, after being elected Bishop in 370, took his families’ seemingly large land assets and used them to care for the poor and needy. This place came to be known as the “basilias” in honor of its founder and served as a poorhouse, hospital, and hospice for anyone in need for several hundred years. Chrysostom “reduced expenditure on the bishop’s palace and transferred it to a hospital. He founded new hospitals, including one for lepers.” The four also established an incredible theological foundation for these acts, and for the encouragement of others to care for those in need.

In expanding the concept of kin, the poor and sick were named by Nazianzus “brethren,” “brothers,” “your own member,” “equals and kindred,” “equal rank with us and of the same race,” and “one common reality.” These terms would be shocking to a pagan raised in the patronage system and an incredible expansion of the obligation of the converted Christian. Nyssa stated “Do not tear apart the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature…You see a man and in him you have no respect for a brother?…For you yourself belong to the common nature of all. Treat all therefore as one common reality.” The Bishops were working with language the Roman people understood (kinship language used in the patronage system) but completely redefined that language to help people understand what it meant to be a Christian.

Another important facet of the Bishops’ beliefs and teachings about actions toward the poor was that of the Image of God. For the Bishops the text about being created in “our image” (Gen. 1:26) and the implications of the incarnation were very important. If people were created in the image of God, and if when God the Son came to earth Christ put on human form, this human form is incredibly important. So much so that anyone who shares that form needs to be treated accordingly. Nazianzus addresses this issue by saying “Our brothers of God…born with the same nature…compounded of nerves and bones as we are; more than this, they also have received the same divine image as we have, and have perhaps guarded it better…They have put on the same Christ and have been made sharers with us of the same.” Notice the use of the term nature. This term that was being used by these same Bishops in when talking about Jesus’ relationship to God: they are both divine and both of the same nature, of the same substance. In the same way all people share the human nature of Christ and deserve the respect of that nature no matter what economic place they may be. Nyssa supported this, stating “Don’t despise these prostrate one as if they merit no respect. Ask who they are and discover their worth. They have put on the face of our savior. The Lord has given them his own image that they might be the stewards of our hope, the guardians of royalty.” For these Bishops the incarnation had tremendous consequences for how we treat all of fellow humanity.

The Image of God ties into a very close and literal reading of Matthew 25. To help a poor person was to literally help Christ, and to not help was to turn away from Christ, with all the concerns that would come from such an action. Nazianzus preached to his people:

“I honor that purse of Christ which encourages me to the care of the poor…I am fearful of that ‘left hand side’ and of ‘the goats’…because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…[W]hile there is yet time, visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh…but let us give him this honor in his needy one, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…”

Chrysostom states that “Jesus is alive in strangers, in the naked, the poor, the sick. Whatever has been done for those in need has been done to Jesus,” as well as “it is Christ who is clothed and fed in the person of the poor man.” There is not leeway in what they said. Help the poor or abandon Christ.

Finally, the Bishops taught that to help the poor was to act like Christ, and to act like Christ was what discipleship is all about. This aligns with Wesley’s understanding of perfection, though the Christians at this time (and still in the Orthodox Church) understood this idea as the process of divinization. As one grew closer to Christ one acts more and more like Christ, becomes more like Christ, and hence, becomes more divine. Though not exactly the same as Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both beliefs strongly rely on an understanding that the life of the Christian is a participatory one. We as Christians bear the fruit of Christ, and the more we participate with Christ (Wesley would say through the means of grace) the more we become more like Christ.

Nyssa talks about this process in relation to how to treat to the poor: being merciful as God is merciful. “Mercy and good deeds are works God loves; they divinize those who practice them and stamp them into the like of goodness that they may become the image of [God].” Nazianzus based part of his belief on right action regarding the poor in Matthew 5:45, “Resolve to imitate the justice of God” whose gifts are “equally upon all, the just and unjust alike, upholding the dignity of our nature by the worthiness of his gifts.” To state this in a Wesleyan way, since God’s mercy is over all His works, so we should be merciful to all we meet, and this mercy is demonstrated by service.

The theological foundation given us by the Bishops helps us avoid two major issues in our care for the poor today: a vision of the worthy poor taken straight from Stoic thought, or a paternalistic view that “we” can and should come save “them” from their present condition. On the first hand, we have seen that any view of “the worthy poor” is theologically unsupportable. On the other hand, if the poor are not only our sisters and bothers but Christ in the flesh, we would not approach helping someone in need without anything but grace, love, respect, and even a holy fear and trembling. Then we would serve not to “fix” or “bring them up to our level,” but instead to be with someone whom Christ is present. When we serve others this way we realize we will learn as much about Christ from whomever we serve as we bring to them, since we are serving Christ when we serve another. Looking at the writings and example of the Bishops gives us a different way of approaching the poor than many current perspective, one which I believe will do a much better job of truly being ambassadors for Christ and representatives of the Kingdom on Earth.

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